Spotlight on Juliet Oyella and Gender-Based Issues in Uganda

This week the GROW Team started our round of GWED-G staff interviews and I had the pleasure of inaugurating them with Ms. Juliet Oyella’s interview. She is the GBV Response Officer and Reproductive Right Project Officer for GWED-G and was in charge of facilitating the GROW team’s fieldwork for the first two weeks. Her response to, “if you could have any superpower, what would it be?” struck me by surprise and still remains vividly in my memory. Even though it was a silly question that I hadn’t forewarned her about, she answered passionately and in a heartbeat. Juliet responded,

I would change this world upside down by having women have their voices heard- women to make independent decisions and not to depend on anybody… I would really bring it to equality level where everybody is able to make decisions, you have money, I have money, I have to make my decisions, I have to be independent- no problem, that is what I would change. But I have no power.”

Juliet’s answer shed light on the cultural roles and perceptions of men in Uganda that we encountered firsthand in the field: issues of gender-based discrimination that GWED-G is trying to tackle. Before I begin, I would like to preface that the following is based solely on my encounters in the past 3 weeks and may not reflect the whole of Uganda’s male population.

Juliet about to lead a discussion with HIV+ mothers

Juliet about to lead a discussion with HIV+ mothers

Men are still prominent perpetrators of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) in Northern Uganda. Although the spread of GBV cannot be traced back to one root cause, many interviewees have indicated that poverty has been a major factor. Especially in Uganda, GBV worsened after the 22-year war, as many people were left with little to nothing. With the lack of livelihood, source of income, and marketable skill, accompanied by years in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps, “where everything was brought to them for over 20 years,” many fell to idleness and alcoholism. Juliet gave a specific episode that guided her on the path of becoming a GBV response officer: when she was growing up she saw a mother with her lips all swollen. When she asked her, “what happened to your lips?” The mother replied, “I fell on a bathroom head.” But in reality, her husband had beaten her. Since women are still lagging behind economically and physically and are continually abused, Juliet believes she must “work hard to ensure women are raised to a certain level.”

During our Women’s Rights Group interview on May 27th, one member mentioned that, “traditionally, men would always be able to provide food but now they are incapable of providing. So when the wife asks for money or food, the husband becomes very aggressive because he is frustrated over having nothing to provide—leading to GBV. In that case, the woman will seek assistance from another man, causing divorce. Another interviewee indicated alcoholism’s link to GBV: husbands become aggressive when the wife asks about “going to dig” as it is his duty but he’s already drunk in the morning, or when “a man scoops whatever little food is within the household and sells it in the name of buying alcohol.” Besides alcoholism and poverty, GBV is also linked to causes such as infertility, disagreement on family planning, and lack of respect. That is why GWED-G has started by sensitizing communities on women and human rights and the importance of communal agreement and decision-making. As one male interviewee aptly put it- “when you deny yourself of any training or knowledge, you will never be outside the circle of domestic violence.”

5/27 Visit to a Women's Rights Group

5/27 Visit to a Women’s Rights Group

Juliet believes GBV and HIV/AIDS are “both a cause and effect of the other.” If the husband is very abusive, the wife might start having a secret relationship not knowing that person is HIV+. The house will be affected by HIV/AIDS due to GBV. HIV can also cause GBV, “especially for mothers who are pregnant.” Many pregnant women discover their HIV+ status when they go to the health center, because it is “mandated by Ugandan law that all pregnant mothers should be tested for HIV/AIDS.” When the husband finds out his wife’s status, he will accuse her of “infect[ing]” him, call her “useless,” and “beat her” before leaving her.

Patriarchal Ugandan culture is a leading cause for the persisting high prevalence of HIV/AIDS. Men hinder the prevention of the disease, as they have a history of “fear[ing]” hospital visits and often refuse HIV/AIDS testing even with their wives’ encouragement. One HIV+ mother’s response to males’ lack of testing was to, “just let them die and she would single-handedly take care of her own children.” Although I was taken aback by her blunt statement, I could see where she was coming from. If there was one thing I learned from most HIV+ mothers, it was their dedication to stay healthy and support their own children. We even encountered several HIV+ mother interviewees whose husbands did not even want to know their wives’ status after being tested. This type of ignorance not only puts the husbands’ life in jeopardy, but also that of his other wives, if present. There is a sustained presence of HIV/AIDS largely because polygamy still remains ingrained in the patriarchal culture- so much that the other wives/mistresses are crudely named “side-dishes.” Juliet corroborated this correlation: Western Uganda supposedly has the most polygamous males and also the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS. According to Juliet, “most husbands- actually for these HIV+ mothers- 90% of the husbands are not supportive.” Some males are even hindering their wives’ treatment for HIV/AIDS. We encountered several HIV+ mothers whose husbands, also HIV+, refused to go to the hospital but stole their wives’ medication instead. “In HIV, if you miss a certain period, it can impact your life so negatively. If you want to get more treatment in the hospital, they don’t allow it.”  She also outlined how all of the HIV/AIDS-linked-GBV, lack of male support, and ignorance culminate in HIV/AIDS stigma; women believe they will die the day they find out their status because of accompanying stress.

Health Center II where some HIV+ mothers receive care

Health Center II where some HIV+ mothers receive care

However, we cannot lift people out of poverty in a day. And, although frustrating, who am I, an outsider, to critique a historically rich culture and call for a fundamental shift in gender attitudes? Where do we start? How can we tackle GBV and HIV/AIDS? Juliet proposed that GWED-G should continue to, “sensitize communities on the importance of working together with your wife and families to ensure that you are healthy, which will improve your economic” status. She also proposed male-involvement as a future source of expansion for the HIV+ mothers’ project. GWED-G could, “maybe call the husbands for a meeting to encourage/sensitize them on the importance of helping their wives to ensure that the crops that we are giving are for the welfare of the family and children- those of which are his as well.” I agree that sensitization is an effective approach for GBV and HIV/AIDS, and advocate for an increase in project areas, as the knowledge of women and human rights empower the project group members. Furthermore, as exemplified by the male role models’ drama, empowered men can share their own stories of change to other males. Thus, I also think husbands should be simultaneously integrated into the HIV+ mothers program immediately. Some interviewees mentioned how their husbands were suspicious or reluctant of sending their wives to meetings because of the program’s exclusivity to women. By allowing husbands to attend meetings or even facilitating a separate function for HIV+ husbands, perhaps some will find the courage to receive treatment or become agents of change themselves.

After a sensitization session that Juliet led

After a sensitization session that Juliet led

GROW Team out.

-Mariko Kanai


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